Category Archives: Exodus

The Far/Near God (Mishpatim)

The Far/Near God (Mishpatim)

God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. -Empedocles

After the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the instruction and communication between God, Moses and the People of Israel continues at the foot of the desert mountain. At one point the Jews are instructed that they will “bow down from afar.”

The Berdichever takes the opportunity to explore the meanings of a “far” God versus a God that is “near.”

The aspect of God being “far” is the belief that God’s infinite light precedes all existence and that there is nothing in all of creation that is capable of understanding God, not even the ministering angels. That is the concept of a “far” God – that He’s incomprehensible. Understanding Him is infinitely far from our capabilities.

The aspect of God being “near” is the belief that there is no place in all of creation that doesn’t have God. God is everywhere. He fills, and surrounds, and sustains reality. He is right here, next to me, with me, in me. It doesn’t get closer than that.

It is the obligation of a Jew to believe in both aspects of God. He’s “far” – infinitely incomprehensible to our minds, and He’s “near” – right here with us, around us, sustaining our beings and existence.

That is an explanation of the verse: “Peace upon the far and the near, said God.”

Another dimension to God being “far” and “near” are the feelings of awe on one side and love on the other, which we need to have of God. “Far” correlates to both the awe of God and the related distance we feel from the mind of God. “Near” correlates to the love and the nearness we feel, to the love and constant attention and care from God.

Hence, when the Jews are instructed to “bow down from afar,” it specifically relates to awe. You bow down to a being that you are in awe of, that you have some distance from.

But where there is love and nearness, we can embrace.

May we feel both close and distant from God, as the situation dictates.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the participants in this week’s Zehut Open Primaries.

Contemporary Ancient Transmission (Yitro)

Contemporary Ancient Transmission (Yitro)

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. -Sir Winston Churchill

The people of Israel had been freed from the slavery of Egypt. They crossed the sea and the desert to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they heard the voice of God Himself. At that Revelation, we received the commandments. We received the Tablets of the Law containing the famed Ten Commandments. That was the historic meeting, what Kabbalists considered the wedding ceremony of sorts, between God and the Jewish people.

This is all documented in our Torah, in the Written Torah, that the Jewish people believe was dictated by God to Moses. There is an equally unshakeable, foundational belief that at that same divine encounter God also shared the Oral Torah with Moses. The Oral Torah is vaster, deeper and more complex than we can ever hope to grasp within a mortal lifespan. The Oral Torah, as the name implies, has been transmitted orally, from father to son, from teacher to student, since Moses until our very day.

The Berdichever adds another dimension to explaining the transmission of the Oral Torah, that would seem to be counterintuitive and defy logic. His statement turns our conventional notions of timelines and cause-and-effect on its head. He explains that the Oral Torah that was given to us back then is based on the explanations and interpretations of our sages and righteous men of our own generations.

In a way that only God, who is independent of time, can accomplish, He is able to avoid any time-travel paradoxes or what we might consider physical impossibilities. God saw how the Jewish Halachic leadership of each generation would interpret and judge the Oral Law, and he took those formulations, principles and laws and transmitted it in some prototypical form, some kernel of basic truths to Moses, who then transmitted it through an unbroken chain through all of the generations since. It is then neither surprising nor contradictory when the sages develop and expand the Oral Torah in a way that adheres to the fundamental principles transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai.

The Berdichever goes on to demonstrate the power of the sages of each generation, that not only are they somehow the intrinsic source of the Oral Law that God gives us, but that their power in the divine realm is so great that in many cases, a truly righteous sage has the ability to actually veto God’s decrees. If God issues a harsh decree, a righteous sage has the power to annul God’s decree. That’s the power God has granted them.

The Oral Torah is real, divine, unbrokenly transmitted, yet with an important and vital human component that interacts with and affects it on a daily and evolving basis. May we take it seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Koren Publishing, on their new Spanish-language Torah transmission efforts.

Articulating Joy (Beshalach)

Articulating Joy (Beshalach)

Joys divided are increased. -Josiah Gilbert Holland

The Egyptian Empire has been pummeled by the devastating ten plagues. In a panic, after the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, Pharaoh and the Egyptian people beg the Israelite people to go; to go to the desert to worship as Moses had been requesting from the first time he confronted Pharaoh.

However, shortly after the Jews depart their homes and Egyptian cities, Pharaoh realizes that this is not a temporary religious excursion. The Jews have indeed headed to the desert, but they have no intention of ever returning to the slavery of Egypt – it was a sham. They have escaped the bondage of Egypt and mean to make way towards their ancestral home, the land of the Patriarchs, the land then known as Canaan. In a frenzy, Pharaoh organizes his army of six hundred chariots and pursues the fleeing slaves.

The Egyptian army traps the Israelite slaves between their mighty chariots and the sea. However, God is not finished with His miracles or pouring His wrath onto the Egyptians. The sea splits, the Jews enter, to come out unscathed on the other side. The Egyptians follow, to find the miraculous walls of water collapsing on them, drowning every single Egyptian soldier. The Jews, filled with joy over the miraculous salvation, break out in song, the famed Song of the Sea.

The very first line of the song states:

“And then they will sing, Moses and the Children of Israel, this song to God, and they said to say.”

The Berdichever wonders as to the repetition of the verb “to say,” and takes the opportunity to explore an aspect of joy. He states that the primary feeling of joy is in one’s heart. Joy is an internal emotional state. Why the need to sing? Why the need to outwardly exhibit this internal feeling?

He explains that there is an added enhanced component to joy when it is articulated. When we voice our joy, the joy itself is expanded. By speaking of our joy, by sharing the feelings of joy with others, the joy itself grows and multiplies beyond the original feeling.

Hence the repetition of the verb “to say.” They multiplied their articulations, their “sayings”; they repeated and expanded verbally expressing their feelings of joy. That formulation, that repeated articulation of joy, was so heartfelt, was so joyous, was so powerful, that it remains an eternal part of our heritage to this day, more than 3,000 years later.

May we always have causes for celebration with dear friends and family to articulate them together and multiply joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the wedding of Esti Spitz to Meir Hess. Mazal Tov!

To the memory of a dear family friend, Efraim Steinmetz. May God console the family among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The Kabbalistic Body (Bo)

The Kabbalistic Body (Bo)

It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. -Marcel Proust

On the eve of the Israelite exodus from Egyptian slavery, the Torah interrupts the dramatic narrative to discuss the rituals of Pesach which will be kept for generations, including the Pesach sacrifice which would be offered thereafter in the Temple. The description is quite specific, including details which were unique to the Pesach in Egypt, as well as to those that are meant to be continued for generations. The Torah even goes so far as to describe the positioning of the body parts of the sacrifice.

The Berdichever chooses that description for an explanation of the deeper meaning of human body parts, and how the human body is in some fashion a mirror of God’s divine attributes. Following is his explanation of a Kabbalistic view of the body:

The legs represent the attribute of “Emuna” (faith), which itself can be distinguished by two different characteristics. The first characteristic of faith is the belief that God is the antecedent of everything in our reality, and that our reality was created and is constantly sustained by God’s will. The second aspect of faith, specifically for a Jew, is the belief that we are His people, that He is close to us, that He listens to our prayers and is able, ready and willing to fulfill our needs.

The reproductive organ represents the bond, the connection which we need to create with our own faith.

The torso represents “Tiferet,” the glory or the splendor that we need to pursue, for God to be pleased with us, proud of us, to thereby bring glory to God.

The arms represent “Ahava,” love, and “Yirah,” awe. The right arm is “Ahava,” the love we must have for God; the left is “Yirah,” our need to be in awe of God.

The head, the seat of the intellect, represents our need to explore and consider the greatness of God, the myriads of ministering angels at His beck and call who themselves serve God with tremendous love and awe.

When a person brings all his body parts to bear in serving God, in all its representations, he then gains humility, to the point of basically reducing the ego and annulling oneself by comprehending the true spiritual reality of our existence.

That, the Berdichever assures us, leads directly to happiness.

May our body parts work healthily and in concert to fulfill divine goals, and indeed, lead us to greater happiness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Chaya and Jason Kanner on their amazing hospitality.

 

The Powers of Speech (Vaera)

The Powers of Speech (Vaera)

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use the pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time; a tremendous whack. -Sir Winston Churchill

As Moses and his brother, Aaron, prepare to meet with Pharaoh, to demand the release of the Israelite slaves, God gives them some advance notice as to what will happen and what they should do.

God advises them that Pharaoh will ask for some type of sign that they are indeed divine messengers. God indicates that at that juncture Moses shall instruct Aaron to grab his staff and perform a miracle.

The Berdichever notices that in the verse there is a seemingly extraneous word. The translation reads “give for yourselves a sign.” The normally word-efficient Torah could have easily transcribed “give a sign.” Why the superfluous “for yourselves”?

The Berdichever answers that according to the great Kabbalist, R’ Isaac Luria, God is listening to our every word. Furthermore, God gets tremendous pleasure from us when those words are words of Torah, of Mitzvot, of good deeds and kindness. Even beyond that, God, through those positive words that we utter, actually blesses us, and enables the good happenstances in our lives. Our words, the positive utterances of our mouth, have a direct impact on ourselves, on our world, on our reality.

The addition of “for yourselves” in the verse comes to highlight that Aaron and Moses, who dedicated themselves to only good and to the service of God, had the power to affect and change reality just by the power of speech. Just by the words they used and their intention, they were able to bend and contravene the laws of nature and do the miraculous. They could turn a staff into a reptile and then turn that reptile back into a staff. They could be God’s agents in bringing down the miraculous plagues upon Egypt. All just from the incredible power of their speech. They understood the power they had harnessed in devoting the words that came out of their mouths to God and Israel.

May our words ever be powerfully good – and if they can’t be, may we learn the more valuable lesson of when to be quiet.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of Elisheva and Amichai Matar. Mazal Tov!

 

Striving for Incompletion (Shmot)

Striving for Incompletion (Shmot)

Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence. -Vince Lombardi

It is probably one of the more mistranslated phrases in the Bible. When Moses meets God for the first time, at the Burning Bush, God informs Moses that Moses will be The Redeemer, the one who will take the young Israelite nation out of the slavery of Egypt and on to the journey towards The Promised Land.

At that historic encounter of Man and God, Moses asks how he should describe God to the Israelite slaves. God answers cryptically that he is “Eheye Asher Eheye” which is classically mistranslated as “I am that I am,” but really means “I shall be what I shall be.” The understanding of what tense God is talking about somehow got lost in translation. God in this verse is in the future tense. (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has an entire outstanding book on the concept, appropriately named “Future Tense”).

The Berdichever expands on the encounter of Moses and God and on the verse of “Eheye Asher Eheye” and teaches what may seem like a counter-intuitive lesson.

He describes the Tzadik, the righteous person, who must know that every time he reaches some divine accomplishment, some gain in his spiritual service, that there is an even greater accomplishment ahead that he has not reached. He has not reached completion. And when he reaches the next spiritual accomplishment, again, he becomes conscious of the next challenge, the accomplishment that lays ahead, and again, how he has reached another level of incompletion. It is infinite. Man can never reach completion. He can never reach perfection. Nonetheless, man is enjoined to ever climb higher and higher. Not only God, but man, and specifically a Tzadik, somehow emulating God, is defined not merely by what he is, but rather by what he will be. And what he will be is something that is constantly growing, climbing, achieving. “I shall be what I shall be.”

The Berdichever relates to a verse from Psalms where King David asks for “just one thing…to gaze upon the pleasantness of God.” He explains that King David is articulating the prayer of the Tzadik, the righteous one, who only wants to gaze upon God. He wants to keep his eye on God. In today’s vernacular we would say that he wants to “keep his eye on the ball.” That ball being God, divine service, dedication to a spiritually rich and meaningful life.

The Tzadik, whenever he reaches some higher level, some spiritual accomplishment, doesn’t want to forget for a moment that there’s more, that he’s incomplete, that there are infinite levels of progress that remain to a human being. He doesn’t want to let God budge from his sights. He prays to God for help with that focus, with that dedication, with that constant attachment to God as our source of life, mission and purpose.

May we indeed constantly climb higher, never losing our focus.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the team dedicated to translating Rabbi Sacks’ work to Spanish on a weekly basis.

What goes up must not come down (Vayakel-Pekudei)

What goes up must not come down (Vayakel-Pekudei)

For one who has been honored, dishonor is worse than death. -Bhagavad Gita

In the course of my career, I’ve had occasion to advise CEOs and directors of organizations as to personnel issues. Many of us are familiar with the “Peter Principle” which explains that often people are promoted to their level of incompetence. For example, just because someone is an excellent engineer doesn’t mean they’ll make a good engineering manager. However, a hopeful management will promote the individual, who will not perform, and the hapless engineer will be stuck at that level of the organization. They will not be moved further up the chain because of poor performance at their new level, nor will they be demoted, because, that’s just not done.

However, more enlightened organizations, realizing their mistake, may indeed return the unfortunate engineer to their former position. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 40:18 (Pekudei) explains why that may also be a mistake.

There is a principle in the Talmud (Tractate Menachot 99a) that states that “we raise things up (in holiness), but we don’t bring them back down.” We learn the “raise” part from the utensils that were used by Korach’s rebellious group when challenging Moses’ leadership. Even though their challenge was ill-considered, it seems there was some desire on their part for greater involvement in divine service. God struck them down, but their utensils survived and were “raised” to serve as the coating for the Tabernacle’s altar.

We learn “don’t bring them back down” from this week’s Torah reading. It states that Moses “raised” the Tabernacle. However, while it is clear that Moses raised and took down the Tabernacle multiple times, it never says that Moses “took down” the Tabernacle.

We learn from this the extreme sensitivity of not bringing down even objects, let alone people, once they’ve been raised to a certain position.

May we always be rising and raising others, and finding creative solutions for those that may be stuck.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the Yeshiva guys entering the army this week. May you have a safe and successful service.